Monday, November 06, 2006

Almost Famous Ammaiyar

In some chola bronzes of Nataraja, one can see a small emaciated ghoulish figure, striking a pair of cymbals in horrid glee, while the deep sockets of her eyes burn with a feverish excitement. This Karaikal Ammaiyar (‘the mother of Karaikal’), with her short matted hair flaming behind the skull that is her face, forming a counter to the supple lissom beauty of the Dancing Lord, is among the 63 Nayanars: the saint-bards who form the Tamil Shaivite Bhakti Tradition.

“…These new groupies! They don’t know what it is like to love one stupid song, or one band, so much that it hurts!” This dialogue from Almost Famous has stuck in my head, and the all-overwhelming passion it indicates seems to me the spirit of the film. And it might as well be Ammaiyar’s words to those other two female Bhakti poets : Meera and Andal. Not for Ammaiyar the sweet whirlings of Meera, or the refined urbane poetry of Andal. Ammaiyar went to crazy extents in throwing over the confines of societal propriety; went wild in her love.

Nor did she fall for the city gods, guardians of the fat bourgeoisie, protectors of the soft ways of civilised life. She gave up her ties to the world for the Dancer of the Cremation Grounds. She asked Shiva the God of the Funeral Ashes to perish her worldly flesh, take away her youth, so she may join his mad entourage watching his frenzy in the cremation grounds: his accompaniment a weird tattoo of ghouls playing on skulls, the cremation fires his limelight, and the clicking of garlands of bones; his applause.

Her Passion was outside the bounds of society, and in the no man’s zone of near-insanity, defying all charges of conformism. Today she might be banging heads at a Megadeath concert. And Ammaiyar was quite a rocker in her own right, to use the word in the sense of the gods idolised by Almost Famous. She was a wild Janis Joplin to Andal’s sweet Joan Baez and Meera’s bluesy Joni Mitchell. The more things change, the more the cycles of Conformity run along the same worn out tracks: Conformity, Rebellion, Non Conformism, Anti-Conformism that to one’s bitter chagrin turns out to be Conformism again, only to a different set of norms.

The theme of a Hurting Love is also universal, linked with wanting to burning short but bright, an illogical belief in some ideal, and the willing to sacrifice so much for it. People spend all their lives looking for such love, such a cause. And how lucky are those select few like Ammaiyar who find that cause and go insane in its ecstasy. If one ignores the religious angle (as one must, to respect the agnostics and the atheists), then is there really all that much difference between the idealism and rebellions of the Flower Children and Rock and Roll, Wilde’s decadent aesthetes, the Romantics, Martin Luther’s Reformers, and the Bhakti Bards singing of their God?

on seeing Almost Famous and reading the Periya Puranam, in the space of one weekend.


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